People who participate in sports can range from professional athletes to the most casual of weekend warriors, but they would all likely agree that some type of warm-up prior to physical activity is a good idea. But when people are asked to explain why warming up is important and what are the best specific warm-up exercises for their particular activity, they tend to struggle to come up with a good answer. Typically, athletes will prepare for their sport by increasing their heart rate prior to competition and performing a variety of stretching exercises. But why is it important to warm the body up prior to intense physical activity? What type of stretching exercises is the best? To answer these questions well requires that we consult some evidence-based sources for guidance.
Although the science behind the benefits of warming-up prior to exercise can be complex, the basic principles are somewhat intuitive. Studies have shown that preparing the body for exercise improves performance and that our cardiovascular and nervous systems, in particular, operate with optimal efficiency when the body temperature is elevated prior to exercise.1 In addition, an effective pre-exercise routine warms the muscle tissues, making them more pliable and less likely to suffer injury when subjected to the rigorous forces involved when playing sports. A good warm-up can be an individual ritual or it can be a series of group activities prescribed by a coach and performed by the entire team prior to competition. The principles of stretching though tend to be less well understood and sometimes are poorly applied. Stretching exists in many forms but the be most popular form is static stretching which consists of stationary poses that are held in one position for long periods of time. Although static stretching has been widely utilized for warm-up purposes for many years, static stretching has lately fallen out of favour as a warm-up exercise.
Studies have shown that static stretching is of no or little benefit prior to the activity and in some cases, has been shown to actually be detrimental to performance.1 Static stretching is most useful when warming-down after vigorous exercise, where it is effective at elongating warm muscles which can increase muscle length and active range of motion. Dynamic stretching, on the other hand, involves movements that not only stretch muscle but also demand strength and neuromuscular control. This form of stretching, as part of a rigorous and dynamic warm-up, is now widely recommended over static stretching for reducing injuries and improving performance. A good example is the F-MARC 11+, a soccer-specific, dynamic warm-up routine developed by an expert group in association FIFA. The F-MARC 11+ takes approximately 20 minutes, requires minimal equipment and training, and consists of running drills combined with dynamic stretching (http://f-marc.com/11plus/home/). Studies have shown F-MARC 11+ is much more effective than traditional warm-up routines in preventing lower extremity injuries in soccer players and reducing time away from sport. 2 In the age of modern sports medicine, it is important for coaches and alike athletes to learn what type of sports-specific exercises are the best form of warm-up for their particular sport.
Much has changed in terms of what is considered a proper warm-up and the available research shows that there is a lot more to it than going for a light jog and doing a few toe-touches. If you are not sure what kind of warm-up is best for you and your activities, you should consult a qualified coach or qualified health professional in your area.
References Judge LW, Petersen JC, Bellar DM, et al. An examination of preactivity and postactivity stretching practices of crosscountry and track and field distance coaches. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research (Lippincott Williams & Wilkins). 2013;27(9):2456-2464. Grooms DR, Palmer T, Onate JA, Myer GD, Grindstaff T. Soccer-specific warm-up and lower extremity injury rates in collegiate male soccer players. Journal of Athletic Training (Allen Press). 2013;48(6):782-789.